Flying F-4 Fighter Aircraft In Combat

Posted by on Jun 1, 2017 in Perry's Blog | 0 comments

The date was 22 February, 1969. I was flying on the wing of Wayne Pearson. Wayne’s backseater was Mike Heenan. Ron Hintze was, as usual, in my backseat.

Wayne rolled in on the target and established a dive angle of about 45 degree (nose down).

A few seconds later, my backseater shouted to me on the intercom, “Holy Smoke, Lead is on Fire”. All I could see was a ball of fire and lots of smoke headed rapidly toward the ground. I shouted on the radio, “LEAD, YOU ARE ON FIRE, EJECT, EJECT, EJECT”. Receiving no response, I kept shouting—EJECT, EJECT, EJECT.

Just before the aircraft impacted the ground we saw one parachute. Our hearts sank—since this meant that it was very likely that one of the two had not been able to successfully eject.

Using the emergency channel on my radio, I made this call: “CROWN, CROWN, WE HAVE AN AIRCRAFT DOWN IN THE PLAINE OF JARS, PLEASE INITIATE A RESCUE MISSION. “

An airborne C-130 aircraft with the call sign of Crown had the important role of supervising rescue operations for anyone down in Laos or in North Vietnam. Crown asked me: how many crew members were on the downed aircraft, how long could I remain in the vicinity of the crash, would I need tanker support, etc. etc.

I kept calling on Guard channel trying to make contact with the downed crewman. After about fifteen minutes Mike Heenan called on his small survival radio.

Mike sounded quite shaken; he said he was “afraid of the tigers”. Mike had been reading a book on the tigers in Northern Laos.

I called Mike on the radio and told him that there were no tigers in his area. He then said that he was bleeding badly. I told him to take off his tee shirt, twist it tightly and use it as a tourniquet. Mike quickly replied, “ I can’t do that”. I said “Why not?”—He replied, “It is my head that is bleeding.” (when Mike ejected at high speed, his helmet flew off . He crashed into a tree and his head split open). I then directed him to take his T-shirt, roll it into a tight ball and press it hard against his head.

About an hour later, the large Jolly Green helicopters arrived. One flew in low and the other held high. From the low flying helicopter a sergeant was winched down on a steel cable. His job was to find Mike, carry him to the cable, place him on the three-pronged seat at the bottom on the cable. Mike and the sergeant would then get winched up together.

Once they were both in the helicopter, a message was sent out by radio that the rescue was a success. It was a moment of great joy and of great sadness. Mike was safe but Wayne Pearson was lost. Ron and I flew back to Udorn quickly. Upon landing and taxiing in, I climbed down from the cockpit of my F-4 and debriefed a number of people.

A poignant moment came when the crew chief of Wayne’s aircraft asked me if his plane was really gone. He loved his aircraft and worried that it was his fault that it was lost. I told the young airman there was no way that it was his fault. However his sadness was profound. Try as I might, I was unable to console him.

Ron and I then raced down to where the Jolly Green would land. Mike was hustled off and I had no chance to talk to him. He was airlifted to Clark Air Base in the Philippines for surgical repair of his head.

I asked the muscular sergeant who had rescued Mike how the rescue went, “Sir, I almost dropped him on the way up.” Mike was so covered in his blood that he was like a greased pig—very slippery.

On that memorable day, the respect I already had for these helicopter crews increased. I had watched first hand how dedicated these brave men were to saving the lives of downed airmen.

During Mike’s convalescence in the Philippines, he taught in the survival school that all Air Force aircrews attended on their way to combat. With a long purple scar from the top of his head to the bridge of his nose, Mike Heenan was a very credible instructor.

Important lesson: when someone is in real trouble in combat or in peacetime, act quickly to assist. A first step is calling in professional rescuers. When the emergency is over be sure to thank those who came to your aid, both orally and with hand-written notes.
[Major General Perry Smith, US Air Force (ret.) flew 180 combat missions over North Vietnam and Laos. He flew F-4D aircraft with the renown Triple Nickel Fighter Squadron.]

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